Contesting Buddhisms on Conflicted Land: Sarvodaya Shramadana and Buddhist Peacemaking Masumi Hayashi-Smith



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Contesting Buddhisms on Conflicted Land: Sarvodaya Shramadana and Buddhist Peacemaking


Masumi Hayashi-Smith
This article explores the multiple manifestations of Buddhism when mixed with populism in Sri Lanka. Buddhism in its various incarnations has both aided and hindered the peace processes in the country. When appropriated to serve nationalist and political causes, Buddhism became an antagonistic feature of the Sri Lankan conflict. Sarvodaya Shramadana, a Buddhist development organization, stands out in the way it uses religion to promote peace through a more open minded interpretation of Buddhist teachings. While Sarvodaya's alternative approaches toward the religion provide an optimistic space for promoting peace, its connections to and dependance on populism can also tether it to politics it may not directly support. This article argues that the most effective means of peace work can be found though the same channel of collective mobilization that hindered it, Buddhism.
“We believe in one undivided Sri Lanka; we believe that without any discrimination to any race or religion, we in Sri Lanka can live together in a righteous society. We can build such a society!" - A.T. Ariyaratne, Founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana (1989: 244)

In July of 1983, when the mostly Hindu Tamil population of Colombo and other major Sri Lankan cities were persecuted, killed, and expelled from their homes, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, the founder of Sarvodaya, took the risk of housing seventeen Tamil people in his own home. When a Sinhalese gang came to his house demanding to see the Tamil inhabitants, they found Dr. Ariyaratne’s daughter who explained to them, “My parents’ instructions are that if my father is here, he will have to be killed before any Tamil family member is touched. If my mother is here, she will die first. Now, as I am the oldest in the family and my parents are not home, I will have to die before you touch them” (Ingram, 1990: 128). The Sinhalese gang, recognizing the gravity of her words, apologized and went away. A few days later, Ariyaratne published a didactic statement chastising the nominative Buddhists who participated in and allowed the riots. He wrote:

For the ensuring of narrow political tribal, religious and economic gains should we be participants in the destroy[ing] of human qualities of kindness, truthfulness and justice—the patrimony of Sinhala Buddhists? To deviate from neutrality is against the Buddha's words 'Dammohave Rakkathi Dhammachari'. Should we deviate from the Dharma path and help to build a society that adulates violence, bribery, corruption? Should we reinforce a party system that ruptures the fabric of the Sinhala race? If we do not indulge in such a train of thought, nothing would be left of the Sinhala race and Buddhism. (2001: 834)


In his statement he emphasized that the state of Buddhism in Sri Lanka was in crisis on account of the violence. If Sri Lanka had any hope for peace, then its majority Sinhalese Buddhist population would have to return to its doctrinal and spiritual roots that recognized the sanctity of all life.

The religious landscape of Sri Lanka is peppered with complexity and paradoxes. Michael Ondaatje (2000) captures this sentiment in the closing scene of his novel, Anil’s Ghost: “These were the fields where Buddhism and its values met the harsh political events of the twentieth century” (300). The story of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is both long and complex. In Sri Lanka, a country known today as the traditional home to Buddhism, the religion has transformed in many diverse ways. Since the introduction of Buddhism to the island in the third Century BCE, the religion came under attack during the colonial period, was re-invigorated in the post-colonial era, and, subsequently, became politicized as a national project (Obeyesekere, 1991, Tambiah, 1992, Scott, 1999).1 Buddhism in one of its most recent incarnations has been implicated in an exclusive nationalist project that abstracted it from its spiritual identity. Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism in conjunction with Tamil nationalism has polarized the population of Sri Lanka and has often justified the use of violence under the pretext of identity preservation. Operating within this context is Sarvodaya Shramadana—a Buddhist development organization earnestly trying to apply Buddhist ideals and principles to its work in order to differentiate itself from the other politicized forms of Buddhism in the country. While the application of Buddhist principles towards programs for general welfare can be extremely helpful, the Buddhist political agenda in the country has placed Sarvodaya in a delicate position.

This article will look at Sri Lankan Buddhism in two contexts. The first is through its history in terms of activism—the history of active Buddhist monks, and the ways in which Buddhism was first mobilized in post-colonial nationalism, and then later in the interest of the Sinhalese population during the civil war that escalated over the next century. The second is the way in which Sarvodaya mobilized Buddhism to influence its projects of grass roots empowerment to inform its ecumenical approach towards peace. While the two different roles of Buddhism in action can seem to be at odds with each other, they have had to co-exist for over half a century. Within the story of Sarvodaya is an interesting interaction between the two roles of Buddhism: Sarvodaya, has both participated in supporting Buddhism as an anti-imperialist, nationalist project, yet it also has promoted Buddhism as an open, inclusive, and non-exclusive religion—making it popular among its majority Sinhalese constituency, while pushing them towards a more progressive ethnic perspective.

The term, “Engaged Buddhism,” is applied to the use of Buddhist practices and principles to combat situations of oppression, marginalization, and suffering. The Sri Lankan conflict is best known for the tactics of terror employed by the Tamil insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and counter-insurgency warfare conducted by the Sri Lankan government. However, the conflict has much deeper roots seated in the greater consciousness of the population, where ethnic animosity and fear has been brooding for decades. Other models of peace work in the country, such as international intervention, have had their various merits, yet are also plagued with significant downfalls. In Sri Lanka, international interventionist approaches towards peace work led to greater mistrust between the Sri Lankan population and the international community. In the past this was seen in the cases of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces that entered between 1987 and 1990 (De Silva, 1981), and in softer ways such as in 2006 when Norway conducted negotiations between the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and the Sri Lankan government (Perera et al., 2008). This was recently exemplified when the United Nations attempted to set up an investigation on war crimes during the bloody end of the militarized conflict. The attempts resulted in mass protests in which protesters, Sri Lankan politicians among them, burned effigies of UN officials, and conducted hunger fasts opposing an investigation (Economist, 2010). Many Sri Lankan Sinhalese believed that most forms of international intervention either give undue privileges to the Tamil population and the LTTE, or they see the intervention efforts as attempts of neo-colonialism. In Sri Lanka, where the trauma and legacy of colonialism still has a large impact, the population is much more hospitable towards home-gown solutions for peace.

In Sri Lanka, one peace solution comes in the form of Engaged Buddhism. The term was coined by the Vietnamese activist monk, Thich Nhaht Hanh, and has been popularized by western activists and scholars today (Queen & King, 1996). Activists within this field are largely informed by Buddhist principles of nonviolence, interdependence, and inward meditation and reflection (Jones, 1989). Currently, the scholarship on Engaged Buddhism, especially within Sri Lanka, has effectively communicated the importance of grassroots connections and holistic peacemaking (Ariyaratne, 1978; Macy, 1985; Bond, 2004; Almeida, 2008) Engaged Buddhism, as operated by the Sri Lankan grassroots-oriented Sarvodaya Shramadana, establishes itself in direct contrast to international interventionist approaches. Sarvodaya is a very large and encompassing organization whose work extends far beyond the scope of nominative peacemaking activities. While the majority of its work has established Sarvodaya mostly as a development organization, it adopted an identity as a peace organization when it focused its efforts towards soothing the escalating ethnic conflict in the 1970s. Since this shift in focus, it has won numerous peace awards. In the realm of peacemaking, Sarvodaya provides an intriguing vernacularized and popular model that incorporates the often-ignored aspects of spirituality into its work.

Sarvodaya has called itself, among other things, a social movement. This self-identification comes from their commitment to envisioning change through mobilizing the grassroots, marginal, and/ or subaltern populations. Academic trends within the social movement field have placed a large emphasis on studying movements in terms of collective identity and recognizing alternative forms of resistance within new sites of conflict (Melucci, Keane, & Mier, 1989, Kelley, 1993). Within the discussion, theorists such as Alberto Melucci argue that resistance within the realm of conventional political channels can limit the scope of social movements, and that new sites of resistance provide metapolitical challenges to modernity (Melucci et al., 1989). James Scott extends this concept to the “infrapolitical” level through his explanation of a “hidden transcript” of a subtle dissident political culture in which larger issues of hegemony can be challenged by small acts of everyday unorganized resistance (Scott, 1985; 1990). In this sense, Social Movement approaches towards peacemaking can both center on goals of institutional change, yet have also recently shifted to validate a more decentralized, identity-oriented approach towards change making that widens the concept of socio-political citizenship (Escobar & Alvarez, 1992). While large parts of the peace process will depend on political and governmental change, a change from within the rest of the population is also necessary to reinforce an infrastructure conducive to maintaining peace. The conflict in Sri Lanka is not only an elite-centered case of insurgency and counter-insurgency—the conflict also has popular participation, and, to a certain extent, popular consent. It is for this reason that the work of Sarvodaya is extremely important to the equation of peace work in Sri Lanka.



Buddhist Activism in Sri Lanka

The history of Buddhist activism in Sri Lanka can first be located in its pre-colonial heritage when Buddhism was a large part of the Sri Lankan governing apparatus. During the different monarchical reigns of these periods a mostly Sinhalese government had power over the island. While many Sri Lankans (including Ariyaratne) have characterized this time as a period of harmonious co-existence between the different ethnicities and races, certain Sri Lankan Buddhist texts, such as the Mahavamsa (“The Great Chronicle”), indicate tensions as well. In some sections of the Mahavamsa, Tamils were characterized as oppressive settlers and even depicted as subhuman. In a particularly illuminating and often cited story, the Sri Lankan king, Dutthagamani felt guilty for slaughtering some Tamil people in battle. When he spoke to some Arahants, or Buddhist enlightened beings about his guilt, they explained to him that he had only killed one and a half people, linking one's personhood to the progress they had made in their Buddhist vows. In this case, he only killed one Tamil person who embraced the three refuges of Buddhism, making him human, while the other person, who had only taken the five vows was considered half a human.2 Thus, the story infers that Tamil people, because of their lack of Buddhist membership, lacked membership to their own humanity. While this was long before colonialism, it was evident that the seeds of creating existential distance between Tamil and Sinahalese people had already been planted.

While the seeds had been planted, this early indication of antagonism did not indicate that the Sinhalese-Tamil relations were as tense as they are today. During the pre-colonial period, solidified racialized and ethnicized identity did not operate in the ways they do now. As John Rogers (1994) explains, in pre-modern Sinhala, distinguishing terms of identity such as race did not exist. Rather, conflicts occurred more along lines of caste, geographic location (coastal vs. hill country), or between smaller segments of ethnic groups, not essentialized categories as a whole (Daniel, 1996). In this period, hybridities among different identity groups was evident in mixed marriages, multilinguality, and the sharing of religions (Rajasingham-Senanayake, 2001). However, during colonialism, specifically during the British raj, the colonial presence imported their stronger defined methods of racial codification resulting in racialized hierarchies, placing the British on top. The worst of the polarization was a result of colonialism and its aftermath.

During the colonial era, most specifically during the Christian British occupation of the island, a strident campaign against Sinhalese Buddhism was unleashed. This provided a greater impetus for the Sinhalese to create their strong Sinhalese nationalism as a response. The first interactions between Christian missionaries and Buddhist monks were surprisingly non-confrontational. Buddhist monks were very tolerant, even welcoming, towards the Christians on the island, at times allowing Christian ministers into their temples to give speeches. However, the monks were surprised when the missionaries and priests did not reciprocate the hospitality and did not let them into their churches. While it is probable that the monks' hospitality came from a Buddhist perspective that religions can peaceably co-exist without threatening each other, their hospitality also indicated how their non-Western interpretation of religion and collective identity differed strongly from that of the colonizers. The Christian presence on the island, in contrast, took issue with the Buddhists—finding it admonishable that people did not share their Christianity. Before colonialism, Buddhists ran the majority of schooling on the Island. However, when the British took control of the island, they decided to take charge of the schooling system, making most of the schools Christian schools in which the students were forced to learn English and look down on Buddhist ideals. The Buddhist monks tolerated the Christian treatment for almost half a year before retaliating. In this moment, the Sinhalese language of dispute changed in response to the colonial oppression. David Scott (1999) describes this: “colonial power was radically altering the very social and political field in which dispute as such could be constructed, negotiated, and resolved” (61). During this period, religion in Sri Lanka changed largely from being the way one was spiritually and physically oriented towards the world to becoming an oppositional identity.

Another important aspect of colonialism’s impact on Buddhism was the loss of the political agency of the monk. Earlier, much discussion had circulated amongst the Buddhist community about whether or not Buddhist monks should be engaged in politics. Buddhist monks were responsible for caring for their constituents. However, the way in which they were to enact their responsibilities was still subject to debate. While some monk scholars, such as Walpola Rahula, used ancient chronicles to demonstrate the monks' responsibility to their villages and their roles in the past as advisers, others argued against monk participation in party politics. In the older periods of Buddhist governance, Buddhism played a large part in the formation of policy as many Buddhist monks had advising roles to political leadership. However, during the colonial occupation, the colonizers accepted the Western orientalist notion that Buddhism was an “other worldly” religion that had no role in shaping the local politics (Seneviratne, 1999). During colonial rule, Buddhist monks' roles in the eyes of the government were decreased to the mere provision of apolitical ritual service, rather than maintaining a strong voice in the policy of their nation. The monks responses to challenges posed by the British raj were not organized as specifically “Sinhalese Buddhist” actions, but rather collective actions made in the interest of communities both of larger and smaller scope (Blackburn 2010). However, the strong politicization of Buddhist monks in the aftermath of colonialism reflected a compensation for their earlier forced anemia.

The arrival of British General Henry Steel Olcott to Sri Lanka in 1800 is recognized by many scholars as the beginning of the Buddhist revival and the genesis of what is today considered engaged Buddhist activism (Queen, & King 1996). While Olcott originally came to the island to start an organization called the “Buddhist Theosophical Society,” he eventually took the role as one of the main anti-colonial and anti-Christian activists in the country. Through the help of Olcott and the Theosophical Society, the Buddhists were able to start a series of Buddhist schools to counter the barrage of Christian schools, bring back Sinhala, and encourage learning about Buddhism. An interesting component of these schools, however, was that their students were given copies of Olcott's The Buddhist Catechism—a text distilling Buddhism into a small booklet that Olcott had originally tried to compel the Sri Lankan monks to write. To the Buddhist monks, this was, “a totally novel idea," (Obeysekere, 1995: 223) as Buddhism is not necessarily a religion that can be condensed into a singular text. The reimportation and reappropriaion of Buddhism on the Island initiated what Obeyesekere calls “Protestant Buddhism,” in which the religion became stripped of many of its rituals, and made more intellectual. Emphasis was moved away from its Jataka tales, or stories of Buddha's past lives, and more towards scriptures. He explains that the reimportation of Buddhism to the island resulted in an over-intellectualization of Buddhism that distanced it from the basic messages it tried to communicate to its people. This new form of Buddhism was focused less on the humanizing qualities, and more on the intellectual and organized aspect of the religion. As a result, Obeysekere explains that the intellectualization of the movement led to a "slow but inevitable dismantling of the Buddhist conscience" (237), which made it “possible for Sinhalas to see the total otherness of their Tamil neighbors" (237).

While working to establish the Buddhist Theosophical Society, Olcott took under his wing Anagarika Dharmapala, a young Sri Lankan who was the main figure in turning Buddhism into a national anti-colonial cause, and was lauded as a Sri Lankan hero. During his anti-Colonial campaign in Sri Lanka, Dharmapala was instrumental in the revival of Buddhism on the island and the eventual liberation from the British. While Dharmapala made great strides towards the emancipation of his country, his rhetoric, nonetheless set the groundwork for a politicized, exclusive, and nationalist Buddhism. Obeysekere explains that "Dharmapala's discussion of Buddhism coexists with a violent anti-Christian, anti-missionary, and anti-colonial polemic" (228) which extended to both anti-Muslim and anti-Tamil rhetoric.3 Obeysekere finishes by explaining that:

Dharmapala himself never encouraged violence against minority ethnic groups, but he framed the ethnic issue in terms of a modern Buddhist nationalism and paved the way for the emergence of a specific modern Sinhala Buddhist national consciousness laying bare for many…the dark underside of Buddhism without the mitigating humanism of the Buddhist conscience (238)


The Sinhala Buddhist national consciousness has several main themes: a romanticization of the pre-colonial past of the island, where Sri Lankans were able to tend to their agricultural projects in an atmosphere of unadulterated Buddhist simplicity. In modern times, this is coupled with the frustration with the current situation influenced by the capitalist and industrialized influences of colonialism and globalization. In this era, Sinhalese nationalists tapped into the more problematic aspects of Sri Lanka's past, romanticizing elements of it such as the Dutthagamani stories of Tamil defeat in the Mahavamsa chronicles. Sinhalese nationalism focuses on trying to protect the country, or more specifically, its Sinhalese inhabitants from the growing threats posed to the religion and past ways of life by the global North Atlantic powers.

In the post-colonial years, Buddhist activism became mostly synonymous with pro-Sinhalese activism. The more political track of Buddhist Sinhalese activism took place during post-colonial 1950s and the mid-1980s during the height of the ethnic conflict. A prominent instance of this can be traced to 1956-8 when the Sri Lankan political elite worked to draft a new constitution for the country. In 1958, the government tried engaging in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact, which would have instituted more linguistically equal options for its constituents. One of the first monastic political parties, the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (EBP) which can be translated to the “United Front of Monks,” led rallies at the state building joined with other monks and put up a strong resistance to the pact, claiming that it would denigrate the role of the Sinhalese. Some monks claimed that it would “lead to the total annihilation of the Sinhalese race” (cited in Tambiah, 1992: 50). The monks directly organized long marches from the capital to the most prominent temples, participated in sit down protests, and also were known to have been involved in anti-Tamil riots. The activism was successful to the point that the pact was dissolved and subsequently Tamil was excluded from the following legislation and political acts—establishing significant barriers between the Tamil constituency and the Sri Lankan government.

As tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese people were exacerbated and violence between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government intensified in the following years, political Buddhist monks also intensified their own activism. Often these monks based their arguments on Sinhalese protectionism and against making any concessions to the LTTE or Tamil people (Tambiah 1992). An interesting debate that grew during the increasing violence between the government and the LTTE was that of “just war.” While Buddhism is considered to be a peaceful and non-violent religion, Sri Lankan monks during this time began to back the anti-LTTE violence using Buddhist principles to support their politics. Some monks, such as the Venerable Professor Bellanwila, explained that at some points war would be inevitable. Others such as the Venerable Athurliye Rathana crafted comparisons of the LTTE to Hitler, explaining that maitriya, or compassion alone is not sufficient to eradicate evil (Frydenlund, 2005).

More recently, Buddhist monks have organized to create their own political party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in 2004. Described by Iselin Frydenlund (2005) as a “protest party” (14), this party advocated for Sinhalese rights and continued traditions of advocating policies privileging the position of Sinhalese Buddhists on the island. The monks, characterizing themselves as the protectors of Buddhism on the island, ground their views in spiritually authoritative texts. In the past decade, during the Norway-facilitated peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, many monks, including the JHU mobilized to protest what they interpreted to be a process ultimately aimed at dis-empowering the Sinhalese. During these processes, monks staged demonstrations in front of the state building and at local religious sites with actions ranging from sit-down protests to burning the Norwegian flag.

This translates to the way many monks feel about the political structure of the country, namely the way they place themselves in relation to the controversial and polarizing debate on federalism. The federalist models for state governance are mostly popular among Tamil interest groups and Sri Lankan academic elite looking for a structural way to accommodate pluralism. Advocates of federalism promote a range of federalist models from ethnic to regional representation. While federalism was not traditionally used to address ethnic conflicts, it currently has been appropriated to constitutionally entrench autonomy as way of helping represent ethnic minorities (Ghai 2000). In Sri Lanka, there has been strong popular and political opposition to constitutional changes that would bring more representation to and benefit the Tamil population (Peiris, 2008). Most relevantly, federalism has been interpreted by many Sinhalese people to be too much of a giveaway for the minority populations, and seen as being one step away from state separation.

There have been no studies specifically gauging the politics of Sri Lankan monks. However, Frydenlund's (2005) survey of monk's views of the conflict showed that many monks theoretically supported notions of state decentralization, but felt threatened by a federal solution that could offer more opportunities for Tamil self-representation. He also found that the majority of the activism performed by Buddhist monks was actually done against Tamil interests. Incidentally, those who fought for Tamil interests cited political, rather than religious, reasons. H.L. Seneviratne (1999) who also emphasizes that while most monks frown upon state decentralization models like federalism, their own structure is highly decentralized, reflects on the irony of the majority of monk political allegiances:

In this Buddhist country, where the life of the fallen opponent was spared, war was never so callous as to kill and burn not just the opponent but his wife and children, kinsmen and fellow villagers. And when the idea of a political solution is suggested to replace this slaughter, the chief monks who oppose it are more numerous than the bearers of arms. (280)

While it is impossible to make general claims about all Buddhist political ideology in the country, a prominent theme is activist work in favor of Sinhalese interests.4 This may be a result more of the political situation and the historical connections between Sinhalese nationalism and the religion, than with religious doctrine in itself. Many monks, out of their responsibility to their constituents, felt the need to engage in issues of social justice. In Sri Lanka, where the ethnic conflict has colonized the domain of politics,5 monks seeking to be active have been funneled into Sinhalese nationalist causes. Monks responding to the needs of their constituents risk adopting populist politics, even when those politics may contradict certain aspects of their religion. It could be seen, thus, that populism, which can be easily hijacked in multiple directions, may be the strongest factor motivating monks to campaign in the interest of Sinhalese nationalism. While this form of Buddhism has many adherents, there is another form of Buddhism that offers an alternative view. Following is the story of an organization that tries to inform its practices with Buddhist spiritual ideology rather than with the Buddhist political identity.

Sarvodaya’s Buddhist Activism in Sri Lanka

The story of Sarvodaya, while maintaining many Sinhala Buddhist traditionalist themes, has shown an interesting deviation from the mainstream Sinhala nationalist narrative. Sarvodaya has worked to demonstrate that it stands firmly as an organization built along Buddhist ethics, spirituality, and principals, not one that condones a harmful and exclusive Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. Emerging from an anti-colonial Sinhalese nationalist tradition, Sarvodaya has tried to differentiate itself by applying its traditionalist Buddhist rhetoric to projects encouraging inclusivity. From the moment of its inception in the 1950s, Sarvodaya demonstrated this inclusivity through its extension of projects to Tamil areas where it hired Tamil leadership, and later through its peace and dialogue projects.

George Bond (2004) writes that Sarvodaya was able to reappropriate Sinhala nationalism as a more ecumenical cause given its ability to “cleans[e] it [Sinhalese nationalism] of racial claims for the superiority of the Sinhalese.” They achieve this through emphasizing the strength and power of Sri Lankans, rather than of the Sinhalese alone. Carrying some elements of Sinhalese traditional nationalism, Sarvodaya leadership also tends to romanticize the pre-colonial past and strives for the aesthetics of the rural village unblemished by today's materialism. This traditional nationalism helps explain why Sarvodaya has gained popularity among its Buddhist constituency, and also demonstrates the ways in which Sarvodaya has evolved as a product of its context. The Sarvodaya model contrasts itself against not only the physical violence of Western imperialism, but also against Western philosophy by challenging its notions of individuality and progress, and thus tries to establish itself as a product of the Sri Lankan people.

Sarvodaya, starting purely as a development organization in the 1950s, located its first project in a village of low caste people who before had been shunned by their local society. In an effort to validate the agency of the workers of the village while also helping the population develop, Sarvodaya engaged in a local participatory voluntary work program. This program later expanded to villages all over the country, including Tamil and Muslim areas. Now, Sarvodaya is one of the largest development organizations in the country with a network of over 15,000 villages (Sarvodaya.org). In every area where Sarvodaya had programs, the leadership was almost always local and representative of the people who were being helped. Specifically in Tamil areas, Sarvodaya leadership made sure that people tended to and took care of their own Hindu temples.6

When the ethnic tensions of Sri Lanka escalated in the 1970s and 1980s, Sarvodaya leadership quickly emerged as one of the leading peace-oriented organizations. Operating under the Buddhist principle of interrelatedness, Sarvodaya leaders felt that the engagement in peace was crucial to the investment in development. Accordingly, Dr. Ariyaratne, the organization's founder, put in place further programs of dialogue and exchange. In the months leading to the racial riots of 1983, Dr. Ariyaratne took special measure to encourage exchange programs between youth of the conflicting groups, and to participate directly in discussions of peace with the Tamil population.

It was the violent riots of 1983, however, that placed Sarvodaya in the public eye as one of the firmest advocates of peace. On July 23, 1983, Dr. Ariyaratne, once aware of the violence plaguing his immediate surroundings, was able to mobilize within twenty-four hours areas of protection for the Tamil victims, sheltering some in his own home. Additionally, he issued strong statements condemning the violence, and later organized large interfaith and interethnic meetings to brainstorm options for pursuing peace. Within the aftermath of the violence, Ariyaratne was the first Sinhalese leader to visit the Tamil refugee camps in the north of the country to offer condolences and donations for their recovery.7

In the decades since the riots, Sarvodaya has been involved in bolstering its existent peace programs and also organizing large peace demonstrations. It has organized mass peace marches around the country and large conferences including over 2000 people. Twice, it has organized mass peace meditations which have demonstrated its impressive ability to mobilize large groups of people. Its most recent mass meditation happened in 2002, when it brought together 650,000 people at Sri Lanka's ancient capital, Anuradhapura, to meditate with spiritual leader Deepak Chopra.

As Dr. Ariyaratne has explained, “people can write entire books about Buddhism and Sarvodaya”8 as almost every aspect of the organization has been built with Buddhist principles in mind. Ariyaratne explains that the organization has especially focused on the Four Brahma Vihara (“divine abidings” or positive conditions of being) as its “guiding principles” (2001: 467). These include:

1. Metta—Respecting life and having loving-kindness for all

2. Karuna—Looking at the causes of suffering and employing various progressive measures to eliminate them

3. Muditha—Witnessing the joy of others and being happy (Nissarana joy)


  1. Upekkha—Developing equanimity and depth of thought, and facing the eight fold path [steps toward right action] courageously. (2001: 467)

In terms of peace, these principles interact with two prominent elements of Buddhism in their ability to inform Sarvodaya's peace activism. The first relates to the Buddhist notion of self and interdependency. The second pertains to action and the concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Both work together in the context of Sarvodaya to help pursue a sustainable peace in the country.

The Buddhist notion of self can first be informed by the concept of anattā, or selflessness. Selflessness can be interpreted in several different ways. In one way anattā can be seen as nonattachment, and the absence of selfishness. An other way addresses the myth of self and questions the hardened categories of an individual and collective identity. The way to conceptualize the idea of anattā is to examine the ways in which the individual is distinguished from others. Thich Nhat Hanh explains the interrelated quality of the self through the term, “interbeing” which he took from the Avatamsaka Sutra.9 Through this notion of interbeing, the particularity of the self also reflects the universality of its connection to all beings and entities. He explains this, “I am, therefore you are. You are, therefore I am” (Nhat Hanh & Kotler, 1987; 87).

Someone, by using the concept of anattā to inform her own definition of self, is compelled to rethink the way she is distinguished from others. If the self is inherently interrelated and dependent on other people, then personal welfare is also dependent on the welfare of others. On the individual level, this means that a person's happiness is predicated on the happiness of her neighbor. On the collective level, it questions the distinction between one group and another (ex. Tamil and Sinahlese groups). Ariyaratne connects this concept to his interpretation of metta, “By...metta, an opportunity is provided for a person to regard everyone else as belonging to one common family. This paves the way for the removal of irrational obstacles and divisions caused by accumulation of wealth, by learning, caste, creed, colour, or religion” (468). In this way, a more fluid interpretation of self extends what would constitute self-protection and self-interest. The removal of socially constructed divisions allows for the development of new concepts of self and inclusivity.

If one group is separated from the other in terms of hardened categories, then it is easy to see welfare as a zero-sum game wherein the power of one group depends on the disempowerment of another group. However, the concept of anattā unsettles the notion of competition for prosperity. It both exposes humanity as a large interrelated group, and questions the notions of boundaries as they appear (Galtung, 1993). As Ariyaratne explains, an acceptance of the concept of anattā has a libertory quality that can lend towards more peaceful thinking. Ariyaratne writes, “in that highly evolved state of a living being called 'human', there is a potential to free the mind from narrow barriers of family, race, colour, religion, national borders and fragmented ideologies” (1980: 78). This can be linked directly to addressing war and violence through Vivienne Jabri's (1996) analysis that “[a]ny representation which blurs the inclusion/ exclusion boundary breaks down certainties constructed in the name of war and thereby fragments myths of unity, duty and conformity” (7). This is very clear in the case of identity formation and mobilization in Sri Lanka where scholars, such as Valentine Daniel (1996) see the conflict in terms, “Indeed, one way of understanding the current violence on the island is to see it as a check on the narcissistic expansiveness of infantile impulses, impulses that fail to recognize that the whole world is not one's own and that all of being is not encompassed within the boundaries of an ever-expanding identity” (68). Sarvodaya's attempts to break away from exclusionist identities and to construct a more fluid sense of self delegitimizes the psychological foundations of war.

Obeysekere (1991) argues for a humanist Buddhism with a conscience which can communicate more effectively to the Sri Lankan heart, rather than the head. He also explains, “Part of the perception of the other as alien and the inability to see the common humanity underlying the surface of cultural differences and physical signs between self and other that the great Buddhist doctrinal tradition enjoined can be seen as the heritage of Anagarika Dharmapala” (237). This theme of breaking down barriers is reflected in Sarvodaya's goals. Sarvodaya, in its engagement of anattā discourages the fashioning of differences between the Sinhalese and Tamil participants. This encourages Sarvodaya members to resist discriminating against each other and recognize their common identities and needs. When asked what his thoughts were about the Sri Lankan president declaring that minorities did not exist in Sri Lanka10, a Shanthi Sena leader expressed, “No minorities is a very good idea…Now Sri Lanka only has Sri Lankan people. This is a very good philosophy.”11 While the president's attempt at a rhetorical erasure of minorities, has many problematic political implications, the leader's optimistic interpretation of the statement reflects a genuine effort to impart the belief of anattā onto the situation. This enthusiasm for supporting the “no minorities” stance of the president was reflected by the majority of the Sarvodaya staff in interviews conducted for this paper. To them, this idea of “no minorites” rather than discounting the diversified experiences of people in the country, discouraged people from thinking of each other in terms of their racialized collective identities, but rather in terms of their common humanity and their shared investment in a peaceful future.

The overwhelming support of the president's statement, however, also highlights tensions within the interpretation of anattā. It complicates the notion of one-ness in comparison to same-ness. Whereas a universalism reflected in policies of equal protection and access can demonstrate a support of unity, there is also the risk of unity becoming an oppressive project of appropriation, codification, and forced conforming to certain prescribed norms. This could easily allow people a way out of dealing with issues of past discrimination and issues of redistribution. In the case of Sri Lanka, ideas of unity and one-ness have tended towards echoing majoritarian Sinhala-normative sentiments in which a Sri Lankan identity is overtly, or more subtly equated with the Sinhalese identity. While Sarvodaya's higher leadership have been clearer in their cautious interpretations of majoritarian-dominated unity, it is not always reflected further down the leadership structure.

Another important aspect of Sarvodaya’s peace activism is the concept ahimsa. Himsa translates to violence, or harm and a indicates its negation. Thus, ahimsa is most commonly translated to the term, “nonviolence.” Dr. Ariyaratne has many ways of interpreting violence, which then leads to a broad interpretation of ahimsa. Dr. Ariyaratne explains that violence can be acted by both citizens of the government, as well as by organizations such as the LTTE. Additionally, violence can manifest in terms of the poverty of the country. Dr. Ariyaratne thus includes notions of structural and cultural violence in his conception of violence and the process of fighting it. Structural violence can be interpreted as the mechanisms of institutional coercion that prevent people from aspiring towards their potential (Galtung, 1965).12 Poverty constitutes structural violence because it creates conditions where people's investment in their own survival forces them to into situations of conflict. In trying to diminish violence, Dr. Ariyaratne has worked to combat the poverty of the country as well as the psychological factors encouraging people to become physically violent towards each other. He calls this building a “psychological” and a “spiritual infrastructure.” Other manifestations of structural violence can be interpreted as inequitable power structures. Engaged Buddhist theorist Ken Jones (1989), explains that addressing structural and cultural violence can be interpreted to be the core of Engaged Buddhism. He writes, “To see only the violence of those who, in desperation, answer intolerable institutional coercion with overt violence is to become party to the hypocrisy of established power." (146)

It is generally accepted amongst the Engaged Buddhist scholars that the genesis of ostensible outer peace is inner peace that starts with one’s mind. The belief is that if one is inwardly peaceful, she or he will be able to interact non-violently with the world. In this sense, the inner cultivation is also an essential part of practicing ahimsa (Bond, 2004). Conversely, violence in one’s mind also can condone or lead to external violence. Vietnamese non-violent Buddhist activist Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “We usually think that killing occurs in the domain of the body, but a fanatical mind can cause the killing of not just one, but millions of human beings” (cited in Sivaraksa, 2005: 15). Sarvodaya works to cultivate inward peace so as to prevent outside violence before it starts. This explains the emphasis it places on group meditation programs and small-scale amity camps. Thus while meditation programs might not overtly address issues of structural inequalities and injustice, they address a deeper part of humanity—hopefully preventing the very thought processes that lead to structural and physical violence.

This interpretation can inform the practice of ahimsa in terms of politics as well. The relationship of Sarvodaya’s politics to peace is significant because of the way politics in general relates to peace within the country. Violence comes about through many different factors: some are merely psychological, yet others are related to institutional and structural coercion. The political structures and practices of the country, such as majoritarian governance, have led to both state and extra-state violence. Accordingly, while undertaking the project of individual transformation is an important factor of fighting violence, it is also essential to understand and address the structural issues.

Sarvodaya’s relationship to politics becomes quite complicated in light of the way Sarvodaya vocally chooses not to align itself with specific political parties and policies. In his essay, “Weaving peace from bottom-up,” Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne explains,

while implementing the principles of non-party political power and seeking participatory politics and democratic self-governance, Sarvodaya creates a constructive, non-violent and peaceful power influence at the national level, including moral power, meditation power, and people power. (5)


Here, we see that Sarvodaya tries to establish change while avoiding the institutions of party politics, which have often been major sources of violence in the country. Within this excerpt, politics is framed in two ways. The first is in terms of “party politics”—often a corrupt and violence perturbed arena that has not seen much progress in terms of the conflict. The second is “participatory politics”—a political model Sarvodaya supports because of its connection to grassroots empowerment and ability to allot agency to populations beyond the elite.

Sarvodaya’s decision to step away from larger issues of politics can be interpreted in two opposing ways. In one way, its divorce from party politics contrasts it from the long history of Buddhist actors in the country that have associated themselves with politics, often to pursue and support projects of exclusive Sinhalese nationalism. As discussed before, the engagement of Buddhist monks in elections, campaigning against more inclusive policies towards the Tamil population, and recently in their establishment of their own political party all are examples of ways in which the engagement of Buddhists in politics has even hurt the peace process. Sarvodaya, by not engaging in politics, also distances itself from this form of contaminated Buddhism. Sarvodaya stands as a quiet model of an ecumenical and inclusive Buddhism unhindered by the binds of politics.

Additionally, by not involving itself in politics, Sarvodaya protects itself from undue governmental attack. Acting primarily as a large development organization, Sarvodaya interacts with the Sri Lankan government through multiple organizational and financial channels. In many areas of its operation the organization, depends on governmental cooperation in order fund its projects, or get access to certain areas. While Sarvodaya has a history of cooperation with the government, it too, has a history in which it has been persecuted by the government as well. Its large share of non-political power with a network of over 15,000 villages has already made it seem quite menacing to the government, and it has been the victim of multiple governmental campaigns. Due to its large constituency and encouragement of non-governmental autonomy, Sarvodaya first came under government suspicion in the 1970s. During this time, the government investigated Sarvodaya on account of issues such as corruption and funding—claims that were never proven (Perera & Jayasekere, 2002). In 1980, this antagonism was legislated as the Volunteer Service Organization (VSO) Registration and Supervision Act. This act required NGO organizations to register with the government and share information about its funding and its activities.

In 1990, the Premadasa administration initiated a governmental commission to more thoroughly investigate the NGOs on the island, particularly looking at “the flow of foreign funds.” In this period, Sarvodaya became one of the largest targets of the inquiry, in which leaders within the organization were continually questioned by the government and taken into custody for up to six months. During this time, Sarvodaya lost government support of several of its programs, and was blacklisted by UNESCO. The government encouraged newspapers, especially through the government-run “Lake House” publishing company to write stories slandering the organization. In one sustained case, the Sunday Leader published a series of stories about Sarvodaya, claiming that it sold orphaned children abroad. In 1992, when Sarvodaya won the Niwano peace prize, the Sri Lankan ambassador to Japan tried to discourage the organization from giving Ariyaratne the prize, claiming that Ariyaratne was under government investigations, mismanaging his work, and planning to enter politics (Perera & Jayasekere, 2002). During this time, the government particularly singled out Sarvodaya. It has been speculated that this was because the government viewed Dr. Ariyaratne as a political threat. Nonetheless, this forever shaped the relationship between the government and Sarvodaya, making its leader more adamant that he would stay far away from politics and the organization strongly warned by the government of the repercussions that awaited it if it were to challenge the government. Rather than playing in the dangerous realm of politics, it has chosen to make the most change possible outside of it.

However, the lack of engagement in politics also has some unintended consequences. Sarvodaya’s lack of participation in overtly questioning the government's role in both systems of violence and coercion could also be seen as indirectly legitimating governmental violence. While Sarvodaya literature reflects the beliefs of its leaders that violence has been committed both by the state and by extra-governmental people and organizations, there still is a gesture in the direction of military legitimization. This can be seen further back in Sarvodaya literature, where Sarvodaya commanders have suggested that Sarvodaya youth volunteers be prepared to enter the army (Ariyaratne, 2001). This appeared more recently with Sarvodaya staff who in interviews unanimously heralded the 2009 military victory of the government over the LTTE as a great step forward without voicing much concern for the violence committed by the government or the current/ past treatment of minorities, such as the conditions of the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps (Amnesty International, 2009), allegations of war crimes (UTHR, 2009; Permanent People's Tribunal, 2010), and the recent police policies of registering Tamils (Murshideen, 2010). While in principal, the notion of ahimsa plays a large role in Sarvodaya ideology, many Sri Lankans still find difficulty with the concept of just war in understanding their own politics in regards to minority rights or governmental minority concessions. This brings about questions of how “engagement” works within Engaged Buddhism. Does engagement require a certain disengagement from politics, or does it require further participation, even at the expense of endangering one's own existence?

The multiple challenges within the politics of peace have placed Sarvodaya in a delicate position in terms of peacework. As seen through its work, it tries to build a “psychological” and “spiritual infrastructure” among the Sri Lankan population that reconceptualizes identity in ways that will make them more caring and invested in the well being of others. To add to the difficulty of being associated with politicized Buddhism, the organization is placed under strict scrutiny by a paranoid government, to which it is already indebted through their collaborative projects to help the Sri Lankan populace. Sarvodaya, recognizing that peacework is only one aspect of a largely intertwined project of social uplift, also has many other projects that do not relate directly to the ethnic conflict. Similar to the delicate position Sri Lanka monks have been placed in, Sarvodaya's responsibility to its large network of predominantly Sinhalese people complicates its dedication to ahimsa in regards to the minorities in the country. Populism and progressive conflict politics come into conflict, the way to navigate through it is not clear. As a result of the delicate political situation, Sarvodaya is able to vaguely allude to the specific changes needed to alter the inequitable social structure, but cannot make controversial claims without further quivering the tightrope strung up by the complicated politics of its situation.



The Benefits and Challenges of Populism

In a country where the majority of society identifies as Buddhist, the type of Buddhism followed becomes an important factor in the pursuit of peace. Both Sarvodaya Shramadana and the Sri Lankan monks will eventually have to come to terms with the way they navigate the populist elements of their religion. The monks' investment in populism arrives from their commitment to care for the interests of their constituents. Sarvodaya's investment in populism comes from its mission of prioritizing the agency of the grassroots. In the case of peace, Sarvodaya makes a large effort to demonstrate that the people, too, can be a part of the peace process. Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne explains that Sarvodaya is trying to, “increase the space available for the people to participate in a lasting peace process without peacemaking remaining a monopoly of a few privileged groups circumscribed by their limited concept of peace” (1989: 146). It is evident in Ariyaratne's statements regarding peacework that he closely links the process to his goals of smaller governance to the de-monopolization of the general governing apparatus. Working outside the contours of elitist politics provides larger opportunities for participatory state building, making the constituents more apt to locate their own role within the peace work.

A difficulty, then, is for Sarvodaya to form a strong and consistent ideological front with control over its own projects that extends from its central leadership to its more distanced constituents in light of its efforts to prioritize grassroots empowerment. While its leaders, such as Dr. A.T. Ariyartne, and the Executive Director, Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne may have very clear ideas about the problematic aspects of all violence, state legitimated and otherwise, the same politics may become diluted further down. This means that no matter what is written in Sarvodaya literature, its mostly Sinhalese employees, and majority Sinahalese Buddhist constituents may still look out for Sinhalese interests in political rather than spiritual ways. This is especially the case when Sarvodaya members must decide how to interact with a government that seems to prioritize mostly Sinahalese Buddhist interests. Sarvodaya emphatically discourages extra-governmental violence—which may serve to discourage another ethnic riot. However, the ambiguity of governmental morality in terms of the conflict lingers on. Through Sarvodaya's programs, members might learn to prevent themselves from being violent to other minorities on the island, but they still may condone violence when performed as a governmental maneuver of righteousness.

While Sarvodaya’s multiple and intertwining projects encounter many questions, its peacework highlights some that are particularly relevant: How can it use its own Buddhist ideology to pursue peace without letting Buddhism's historical political identity make its religious identity reign imperial within its projects? Does its decision to not engage in politics separate itself from the communalistic Buddhism in the country, or does it allow Sarvodaya to quietly condone state actions while it tries to pursue greater change through outside channels? These are questions Sarvodaya would benefit from contemplating as it crafts its future peace campaigns. As Sarvodaya is such a large, popular, and populist organization, its actions have implications far beyond its headquarters. In fact, the uniqueness of its work can set the tone of possibility for most peace-oriented civil society in Sri Lanka, and the world. Similarly, by not considering issues of power, privilege, and political urgency, it risks narrowing the field of possibility for others.

However, Sarvodaya's connection to such a large portion of the Sri Lankan demographic also places it in a prime position to change their mentality. In this sense, populism,which could be perceived as a challenge to Sarvodaya's peace work, can also be its greatest strength. Identifying as a social movement, but in light of its persecution by the government, Sarvodaya has worked at the grassroots level—focusing on changing the ways society perceives the conflict, and accordingly their own actions within it. This approach gears toward changing people's modes of interaction with each other, rather than larger political institutions. Through the far reaches of its programs, the diversity of its projects, its connections to Sri Lankans of almost every demographic, its reputation to care for peace, and its ability to mobilize large masses of people, it provides one of the strongest spaces of potential to realize Obeysekere's concept of a humanized, heart-centered Buddhism. How far they can take this humanized Buddhism within the space of the political Sri Lankan context is largely up to them. It can be seen that when stuck in such a precarious position, Sarvodaya is doing remarkable work as a Buddhist organization. Operating with a predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist demographic, it has Sinhalese normative tendencies, but tries hard to perform through the good will of a spirituality that comes from Buddhism, but does not impose its Buddhism. Planting the seeds of peace in the minds of the Sri Lankan people, Sarvodaya strives towards cultivating a new Sri Lanka ready to move past the conflict.




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